Scientists are bending back to answer important questions about the omicron. But can we wait for their answers? Or is the procedure already appropriate, and if so, which one?
“Please do what needs to be done, too soon and not too late, and listen to my colleagues who advise you with more experience in the matter.” Molecular biologist Niko Kaliuer (UGent and Flemish Institute for Biotechnology) expressed concern about the omikron variant on Twitter and called on policy makers to take timely action this time around. “I hope it will not be possible to repeat the same period in 2020 in March and April 2022.”
Primarily, it is the numerous mutations of the omicron that are causing Callewaert’s concern. “I had to pant when I first saw him,” Callewaert says with appropriate photos. “Carpet bombing in areas where our antibodies combine.” But, and Callewaert acknowledges this, many important questions remain unanswered. What is the effect of these mutations on the protection of the vaccine, against infections and serious diseases? How much omicron is infected and will the alternative spread as fast here as it does in South Africa? “We’ll know that in a few weeks,” Callewaert says. “But it is important that we devote ourselves as much time as possible to adapting vaccines and antibody-based therapies as needed.”
The official count is currently 28 cases in our country, but there may be more. Can we then, based on what we already know, wait for more clarity? “You have to make a solid guess in these kinds of situations,” says virologist Mark van Ranst (KU Leuven). “Otherwise, you risk a fatal delay.”
Based on preliminary data, experts from the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) estimate the risks associated with a further increase in omicrons in the EU as “high to very high”. And this progress can happen quickly. According to the ECDC, more than half of infections can be attributed to omikron within a few months.
According to estimates by biostatistician Tom Wenseleers (KU Leuven), the omikron in South Africa infects four times more people than the delta variant in a single generation time of 4.7 days. The oomicron reproduction number — a measure of how many other people an infected person infects — hovers around three. Then the number of infections doubles in 2.6 days.
Omikron is also on the rise in the UK. The counter is already in more than 330 cases. “I was shocked to resign,” warns British epidemiologist Deepti Gordasani (Queen Mary University of London). “Shouldn’t we take action to block a wave on top of the current one?”
“If the speed at which Omicron is spreading in the UK continues, an alternative could be in control by the end of this month,” says Wenseleers. “What measures can stop omikron? I think that we will have to rely primarily on the campaign to promote and modernize vaccines as soon as possible.”
“What we definitely need to do is limit offering more by testing all travelers,” says van Ranst. “This does not change the fact that Omicron has gone under the radar in Europe in recent weeks and that the sleeping giant is gradually waking up.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suspects that travel restrictions will soon lose their effectiveness, given the growing number of local infections. Experts in their recommendations refer to well-known advice. Vaccination, ventilation, maintaining distance, wearing mouth masks and limiting contact.
“It is too early to provide specific advice focused on Omicron,” Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, said at a press conference. “But what we do in the fight against Delta will also be helpful if omikron becomes dominant.”
Although classic recipes on the omikron variant may have less effect. That is why Van Ranst regrets that no stricter measures have been taken in the most recent advisory committee. “The potential advancement of omikron has also played a role in shaping our advice, which has unfortunately been ignored.”
Can we still expect bolder policy in the coming weeks? There is still a possibility that it may not be so bad, if Omicron does not gain a foothold here or if it turns out to only cause ‘mucous fall’ among vaccinated people.
“We are now learning more every day,” says biostatistician Gert Mullenbergs (UHasselt and KU Leuven). And we can expect some effect from the measures taken: neither delta nor omicron can spin in an empty Sportpaleis. Let’s keep a close eye on trading and new ideas, and be ready to respond quickly.”
Virologist Guido Vanham (Institute of Tropical Medicine) doubts whether this will happen in time. “Our policymakers still do not understand, or continue to ignore, the concept of exponential growth,” Vanham says. “They have done it again in this fourth wave, and if they do it again, we could have a difficult spring ahead. Those who are smart will reduce their contacts and not have very high expectations for the holidays, no matter how hard that may be.”
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